July 1, 2013

Success Leaves Clues

Success leaves clues
It’s been said that ‘success leaves clues’, and as it relates to strength training, one with a keen eye and deep understanding of biomechanics and physiology, as well as programming, can pick up on subtle variables when analyzing the training routines of past champions of the iron game in an attempt to seek out clues that may have lead to their success so that they can apply them to their own training routines. To the ‘untrained eye’ however, finding clues may not be all that easy and here’s why.

Keep it simple!
More often than not clues are ‘hidden’ (if we can even call it that) in plain vision, and analyzing the training routines of great champions of the iron game’s past usually reveal but one, subtle, common denominator in most cases, and that is: all great champions pretty much stuck to the basics/fundamentals. Whether it be bodybuilding, powerlifting, or any other sport that heavily relies on strength training to give an individual the greatest physical advantage, at the end of the day, the greats kept it simple! And while keeping it simple in almost all cases will lead to the greatest reward per investment of time/effort, finding out that the same exercises you’re currently doing are no different than what launched the greats before us to the top, doesn’t really provide that satisfying ‘ah ha’ moment that comes from discovering a missing piece to a puzzle that one feels would maximize their training and take their body to the next level.

Genetics, although out of your control, are the greatest determining factor
So what can what be taken from this ‘keep it simple’ mentality that helped propel the greats before us to levels most will only dream of? Well, for one, it could be perceived to mean that the great champions that we celebrate, whether they be bodybuilders, powerlifters, World’s Strongest Man competitors, etc, likely succeeded in spite of how they trained, not because of how they trained. When you think about the fact that many others who aspire to be great in a given field are doing the same things that the champions are doing, and not getting the same return on their investment, then obvious logic would suggest that genetics play a huge role in determining the outcome. If not, then seemingly anyone could reach world class levels by simply outworking every other competitor, but this just isn’t the case.

The combination of talent and skill trumps all
Not to defer anyone from pursuing their dream of attaining heights that only few will ever reach, or to take away from the accomplishments of great champions before us by insinuating that they lacked the work ethic needed to be the best at their respective sport, but more so to imply that when you combine God given ability/natural talent, with very, very hard work to perfect ones skills, it doesn’t really matter what it is that’s done (as far as specifics are concerned, ex. exercise selection, rep range, training split, etc), as long as the effort is there not much will be able to prevent one from achieving what they’d originally set out to accomplish in the beginning. This is unfortunate for those who thrive on simply working harder than others to make up for a lack of natural talent, and adhere to the ‘hard work beats talent, when talent doesn’t work hard’ slogan, because when talent works hard, ones without the same level of talent likely don’t stand a chance!

A prime example of talent and skill
Take for example, 8 time Mr. Olympia Ronnie Coleman, one who many consider to be the most dominant, and successful bodybuilder to ever walk on a bodybuilding stage. Legend has it that Ronnie started out as a regular guy who simply trained because he loved to lift weights (albeit, extremely heavy) and bodybuilding was not his first passion. Ronnie would have excelled as a powerlifter, but the owner of the gym he trained at saw potential in him as a bodybuilder and had apparently encouraged him to enter a bodybuilding competition. The rest as they say is history.

The point here is that someone like Ronnie was born with the genetics needed to become a great champion in the bodybuilding world, and as long as he worked hard, sticking to the basics was all that was needed to do, and nothing was going to stop him from getting to the top and staying there. He isn’t known to have used any fancy equipment, or special techniques. Hell, he trained in a gym in the middle of Texas that doesn’t even have air conditioning!

If it was easy, everyone would/could do it
While some may point the obvious finger at the likely usage of anabolics/androgenics playing a huge role in Ronnie’s near flawless physique (by bodybuilding standards), legend has it that he was able to attain a ‘pro card’ without ever using anabolics/androgenics (Kai Greene is another example of someone who reportedly turned pro before using anabolics/androgenics further cementing the point about genetics being a determining factor). When you look at the bigger picture though, it’s not like there aren’t many, many others who share the same dream of becoming Mr. Olympia, willing to do just as much, if not more, anabolics/androgenics, or whatever else it takes to get there, along with hard work. But yet and still, for almost a decade, Ronnie was as unbeatable as anyone the bodybuilding world has ever seen.

Perception is everything
To those looking for that missing piece of the puzzle, it may be demotivating to find out that there aren’t really any secrets when it comes to strength training, at least none that would trump the basic fundamentals. However, those who are not certain whether or not the most basic of movements are all it takes to build championship physiques/strength levels should be inspired to realize that hard work is the greatest limiting factor within ones control (the greatest limiting factor out of one’s control being their genetics). Regardless of whether you train recreationally, or intend to take your physique as far as your genetics will allow, sticking to the basic fundamentals more often than not, and keeping things as simple as possible, is all that you’ll ever need to do, as long as minor adjustments are made along the way.

The exception to the rule
Though keeping it simple has likely produced more great champions than any other principle/method, that isn’t to say that one cannot succeed while travelling down path less travelled, it’s just not as common. There are rare occasions where I’ll stumble upon something that is a little unconventional in my attempt to constantly ‘sharpen my skills’, and facilitates the expansion of my horizons.

You’ll always find what you’re looking for
For those who feel that sticking to the basics is either boring, redundant, or not producing the result it once had, and are convinced that there has to be effective, proven, alternatives out there, there are. But, as stated at the beginning they’re not always easy to find.

Because bodybuilding is a subjective sport which contains a lot of ‘grey area’, in which the winners are based on the opinions of others (preselected judges), and powerlifting is an objective sport which is very ‘black and white’, in which the winners are based on whether or not a lift was successfully completed, it’s difficult to add quantifiable value to the effectiveness of an exercise promoted by a bodybuilder as opposed to a powerlifter.

For example, a bodybuilder may endorse a certain exercise and suggest that it was influential in improving the development of a lagging muscle group, when really, the individual in question may have simply been an exception, and made drastic improvements in spite of what they did (which is very often the case with the genetically advantaged bodybuilders). Because bodybuilders primarily strive to increase their muscle mass (grey area – can’t be measured), and secondarily seek to improve their strength levels (black and white – can be measured), it’s difficult to quantify how effective a certain movement has been, and their improved muscular development may easily be the result of several other factors (increased protein intake, increased training frequency – specialization, increased anabolic/androgenic dosage, etc).

All factors being equal, powerlifters can more effectively suggest how influential any given movement was, by simply tracking their strength levels as they substitute various exercises in, and out, or their programs. If their strength increases faster as a result of supplementing a certain exercise into their routine, there’s no doubt as to whether or not that exercise positively impacted the end result. Same goes if their strength fails to increase, or even decreases.

Objective vs. subjective
This simple perspective on objective vs. subjective acts as a compass in that it points to the training of powerlifters as a more reliable source for discovering ‘hidden gems’. Here are some of those gems:

Karwoski Shrug/Row: Kirk Karwoski has popularized his variation of a shrug combined with an upright row used to primarily develop the traps. The lift is performed with a barbell, although it can be performed with a smith-machine, or even a cable attachment (provided the cable stack has enough weight to be effective given your current strength levels), and is executed by pulling the barbell up into your belly button where it is held for a brief moment to intensify the contraction.

*The Karwoski Shrug/Row is the absolute best trap builder that I have personally found. Definitely a hidden gem!

JM Press: JM Blakely popularized his variation of a close-grip bench press combined with a lying triceps extension used to primarily develop the triceps, as well as improve lockout strength on the bench press (which is something he’d know something about, considering he’s benched over 700 lbs.). Like the Karwoski Shrug/Row, the JM Press is performed with a barbell, but can also be performed very effectively, and safely, with a smith-machine, or on the floor as well, and is executed by lowering the barbell to the upper chest/neck region, while keeping the elbows tucked to the sides of the body.

Reverse-Grip Bench Press: Anthony Clark popularized the use of a reverse grip while bench pressing, to increase his bench press strength (which is something he’d know something about, considering he’s benched over 680 lbs.). The theory here, in my mind anyway, is that, the stronger you are in a mechanically disadvantageous position, the stronger you will automatically be when in a mechanically advantageous position. Like the Karwoski Shrug/Row, and the JM Press, the reverse-grip bench press is performed with a barbell (although a spotter will be needed to hand you the weight and help you rack it), but can also be performed very effectively, and safely, with a smith-machine, or on the floor as well.

Trap-Bar Deadlift: Al Gerard inspired the development of a trap-bar to perform deadlifts as a way to work around a chronic lower back injury. The hammer strength shrug machine can alternatively be used to perform a similar movement of a trap bar deadlift.

If you have any questions about any of the content within this article, or in regards to any of the exercises highlighted, feel free to contact me at ben@paramounttraining.ca. I'm available for online consulting and personalized program design, as well as one on one training if you are located in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA).

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